The Test and County Cricket Board meets today to discuss a proposal by Lancashire to suspend all overseas player contracts after 1996, largely on the grounds that the proliferation of international tours is limiting both their energy and availability for domestic cricket.
Countries like Sri Lanka, for example, now regularly host tours during August and September, and Pakistan's current visit means that Lancashire are having to do without Wasim Akram, while Somerset have been deprived of the services of Mushtaq Ahmed. However, it will be a surprise if the debate does not broaden into a wider discussion about whether overseas players have now overstayed their welcome in county cricket.
They were introduced in 1967 (when the MCC was still running the domestic game) as a means of pepping up declining spectator interest. Initially, it was a great success, and the two men and a dog audiences (with even the dog failing to turn up on occasions) was reversed with the arrival of the likes of Gary Sobers.
Barry Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Graham McKenzie, Andy Roberts, Jeff Thomson and Malcolm Marshall increased membership figures, and also gave unfashionable counties the chance to compete on a more equal footing. Even Yorkshire finally abandoned their policy of looking no further than Barnsley and Bradford, let alone Bombay and Barbados, with the signings of Sachin Tendulkar and Richie Richardson.
However, a feeling that county cricket was being swamped by overseas professionals eventually began to creep in, and in 1975, Warwickshire fielded no less than five in the County Championship. Three of them - Alvin Kallicharran, Rohan Kanhai and Deryck Murray - everyone had heard of, another, Bill Bourne, one or two people had heard of, and the other, Earl Harris, absolutely no one had heard of.
With so many home-grown cricketers being denied a place in the side, restrictions were brought in, and some counties are now wondering whether it is time to knock the entire principle on the head.
Brian Lara, whose record-breaking 375 in the Antigua Test last April created phenomenal interest, prompted only a modest increase in Warwickshire's season-ticket sales, and the fact that these players can be seen every Tuesday and Thursday at places like Derby and Northampton has not only decreased their pulling power, but also detracted from attendances at tourist matches. In fact, the tourist match has been so thoroughly devalued, despite cash incentives from sponsors, that counties invariably use them to rest their own best players.
Attendances are now more closely related to success than star names, but the real point to the whole discussion is whether overseas players have an adverse effect on England's Test cricket. Some counties feel that their overseas players speed up the development of their home-grown players, while others feel that they take away specialist knowledge of English players and conditions, then come back and give England a good hiding in home Test matches.Reuse content